By Ben Geman and Jim Snyder - 01/25/10 11:21 PM EST
Climate change activists are eyeing the State of the Union address Wednesday for signs the White House is willing to spend political capital on a sputtering effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
In his first major speech to Congress last February, President Barack Obama backed up his campaign rhetoric by promising to push for a cap-and-trade system, asking lawmakers to “send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.”
Dirk Forrister, who chaired the White House climate change task force under President Bill Clinton, said the speech will provide an important signal about White House intentions this year.
“There are an enormous group of businesses and environmental NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that are watching the State of the Union very closely to see whether Obama still has the fire in the belly for the climate issue that he had in Copenhagen, or whether he is going to back off at all,” said Forrister, referring to Obama’s personal diplomacy to help salvage a limited climate agreement at international climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, last month.
Forrister is the managing director of New York-based Natsource LLC, an asset management and advisory firm that does business in emissions trading markets, and he is also an official with the International Emissions Trading Association.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) hope to craft a compromise package that includes emissions limits of some kind — they’ve been vague thus far on the architecture — and support for nuclear power and offshore drilling.
But emissions caps are highly unpopular among Republicans and some centrist Democrats. Lawmakers including Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) — who faces a tough reelection battle this year — and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) want the Senate to take up a package of energy efficiency and domestic production incentives while shelving mandatory emissions curbs.
A White House official last week deflected questions about whether the administration would endorse moving ahead with energy measures while dropping emissions caps.
“The administration remains committed to comprehensive energy and climate legislation that includes cap-and-trade,” said Gary Guzy, deputy director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at a briefing Thursday.
Another former climate aide in the Clinton White House said discussions about climate and energy legislation include emissions proposals that are narrower than the sweeping plan the House approved, such as a cap-and-trade system that applies only to the electric utility sector.
“There are many very important options between economy-wide cap-and-trade and no mandatory climate legislation,” said the former aide, who remains involved in the issue. “There are so many options out there that to pretend it’s economy-wide cap-and-trade or an energy bill and those are the only two options is simply not accurate.”
Bill Whitsitt, an executive vice president with oil and natural gas producer Devon Energy Corp., said Obama’s speech could provide clues about what’s next.
“To the extent that there may be signals as to whether we are moving to a more incremental and/or evolutionary approach to some of the policy areas that we are concerned about, I am going to be watching with great interest,” he said.
Fiscal commission criticized
On Capitol Hill, the Senate is expected to vote on an amendment from Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to create a bipartisan commission made up mostly of serving members who would chart a course for reining in the national debt.
Controversially, the commission would have the power to force the House and Senate to vote on its recommendations, which makes Washington’s special interests nervous their ability to participate in the debate will be lessened.
Lobbyists expect Conrad and Gregg to introduce their amendment to the debt ceiling bill during debate on Tuesday. “Our nation’s economic future is on the line,” Conrad said in a statement.
But outside lobbying groups are worried the commission will have too much power, and that they won’t have the same access they now enjoy through the committee process.
The National Association of Manufacturers opposes the amendment, because it would undermine an “open” legislative process, said Dorothy Coleman, vice president of tax and domestic economic policy.
The powerful seniors lobby AARP is fighting the commission by lobbying members, running advertisements in local publications and getting out word to its grassroots base. AARP said its members have sent “tens of thousands” of letters to Congress opposing the commission.
“Our members are worried,” said AARP spokeswoman Mary Liz Burns. “They want an open, transparent government.”
The chief problem with the commission is that it could force votes in Congress, Burns said. The worry is that the commission will eventually propose cuts to Social Security and Medicare, two immensely popular programs for seniors.
Watchdogs ask White House to go easier on K Street
More than a dozen public interest groups have asked Obama not to use lobbying registrations when picking his future political appointees.
In a letter last Thursday to the president, watchdog groups including Common Cause, OMB Watch and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said it was wrong to use the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) as a basis for who could and could not serve in the administration.
The letter was dated on the one-year anniversary of Obama’s tough executive order designed to close the revolving door between K Street and the executive branch.
The public interest organizations say the order has had the effect of reducing transparency in Washington, as more and more lobbyists canceled their registrations, and disqualified good people from serving in the administration.
“Using [the LDA] to restrict public service has the perverse result of decreasing transparency and driving real influence-peddlers into the shadows and out of the sunlight,” says the letter.
The groups recommended that the administration amend the order to allow lobbyists to serve by narrowing the restriction to anyone who has a financial conflict of interest, much like they did in changing limits surrounding the stimulus package.
In addition, the coalition suggested the White House concentrate more on campaign finance reform, not K Street, in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision to remove the ban of election spending by unions and corporations.
A White House official said Monday that there were no plans to amend the order.
In addition, the official said exemptions could not be carved out for public interest groups.
“You can’t have special exceptions for the lobbyists you like and none for the ones you don’t like,” the official said. “You need to have a consistent standard that ensures that special interests don’t get special access to the government that the American people don’t have.”
Kevin Bogardus and Walter Alarkon contributed to this report.